'We Can Have Our Own Phogat Sisters': Inside Varanasi's Wrestling World, Where Girls Fight Boys
But in the city that Mark Twain had once described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” the oldest akahada, believed to have been established by the writer-poet Goswami Tulsidas, best known for his version of the epic Ramayana, had kept its doors shut to women till only last year.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh: Nandini crotch lifts a man almost double her size and, within a blink of an eye, she pins him to the ground. He is left lying on the floor without much defence. The 19-year-old girl, pleased with herself, looks at her friend Aastha, who instantly raises her left hand to give her a thumbs up. Aastha’s other hand is in a plaster cast as it broke about a week ago during one of these rigorous practice sessions.
In Varanasi’s famous Sigra Stadium, located in the centre of the city in Chhittupura, girls and boys have been wrestling each other for nearly a decade. But in the city that Mark Twain had once described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” the oldest akahada, believed to have been established by the writer-poet Goswami Tulsidas, best known for his version of the epic Ramayana, had kept its doors shut to women till only last year.
It was not until actor Aamir Khan’s blockbuster ‘Dangal’ that the big pehelwans in the city decided to allow women into the five-centuries-old Tulsi Swaminath Akhara, Varanasi’s oldest mud wrestling gymnasium, at the Sankat Mochan temple on Tulsi Ghat.
On India's Independence Day (August 15), in 2017, the temple authorities decided to take a step towards women’s freedom and breaking its 450-year-old tradition permitted girls to practice and wrestle in its hallowed mud pit.
“We didn’t realise that girls can wrestle too till we witnessed the Phogat sisters’ incredible story from Haryana. Our girls can do the same,” said Kallu Pehalwan, the local pradhan and a former wrestling star of Varanasi.
As Kallu Pehalwan talks about his belief on how it will be a woman who will make Varanasi proud, his granddaughter, Palak, quietly peeps from behind the door. She is dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of loose shorts that extends almost to her thighs. Her hair is cropped short. “I like my hair this way,” she tells me.
But long before Kallu Pehalwan’s ‘belief,’ the girls’ pleas for the authorities to open up the akhara for them had fallen on deaf ears. They were firmly told that they are forbidden to enter as the ground was dedicated to the bachelor god, Hanuman. "We were shown texts on Hanuman's vow of bachelorhood and told that girls are impure and their presence is a sin for the god,” Nandini said.
It was their guru Gorakhnath Yadav who finally found a way to convince them and the two films ‘Dangal’ and ‘Sultan’ helped him with this cause.
The ‘Dangal’ Effect
Kallu Pehlwan feels that he could be the Mahavir Phogat, portrayed by Aamir Khan in ‘Dangal’, in his granddaughters'lives.
His granddaughters, Palak (age 12) and Kesri (age 14), are the first girls in their family of wrestlers to enter the ring. Every day, hours before dawn, Kallu Pehlwan takes them to the akhara to train them. In the evening, at around 5:30 pm, they go to the Sigra stadium to train under Gorakhnath Yadav, who has been coaching since 2008.
“You will see them shining in a year,” Gorakhnath says, with a broad smile.
Though his current enthusiasm is a result of Bollywood blockbusters, Gorakhnath, a coach at the Sigra stadium, has been battling for over a decade now to get women to participate in Varanasi’s ancient tradition of wrestling. It was in 2007, as a coach at the Durga Charan Balika College, that he noticed the immense potential the girls had in Kabbadi. He approached the college teachers, seeking their permission to send these girls to the stadium so they can learn wrestling.
“Wrestling has been important for Benares as far back as history goes. But somehow, we continued living in the old times. Most of the people here were not open to the idea of girls fighting,” said Gorakhnath. He also explained that Kabbadi helps in building core strengths, and if someone is good in that sport, they are usually good at wrestling too. “It’s all about the tactic,” he said.
When the school didn’t show much support, he took it upon himself to convince the girls' guardians. It worked. About 20 girls started going to the stadium for regular practice. However, that didn’t last too long.
A couple of years later, most of the girls dropped out. “With the lack of government funds, we couldn’t have a good infrastructure. When the girls started losing out on competition, the enthusiasm died and they started dropping out,” he said.
It was in 2016 that things started changing. Soon after Sakshi Malik won the bronze, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics, parents came rushing to Gorakhnath hoping that their daughters can, with proper training and guidance, do the same.
Prem Kumar Mishra, General Secretary of Uttar Pradesh’s wrestling association, believes that it was the ‘Dangal’ effect. “Despite having a long tradition of wrestling in the city, people were not open to the idea of women wearing knickers and fighting with men. With Sakshi Malik and the story of Phogat sisters, many girls decided to learn kusti as well,” he said.
Among the 12 girls who regularly practice at the stadium, six of them have gone on to participate in the nationals, both in the junior and the senior categories. In 2016, Freedom Yadav and Poonam Pal participated in the China-Asian championship, their first entrance to the Internationals.
The Subtle Sexism
Even as one of the first hurdles towards inclusiveness in sports has been cleared, there are still certain unsaid rules that the girls are expected to imbibe, highlighting the sexism, however subtle, in the battleground. While the girls and boys practice on the same mat, often engaging in a battle against each other, their clothing isn’t similar. While many of the boys are dressed in their orange-coloured suit, some of them don a pair of shorts, their chests bare. Often, their guru insists on them taking off their shirts. However, the girls have a strict dress code. They are supposed to wear their wrestling suit, but have to make sure it isn’t visible. They are asked to cover up properly—a round-neck t-shirt and a pair of slacks is a must.
When 13-year-old Bharti goes up to her guru to touch his feet, a usual act before and after the practice session, Gorakhnath raises his eyebrows. “Why are you in knickers? Come back in slacks tomorrow,” he tells her. He then pulls up another girl who is wearing a pair of shorts that ends just above her thigh. “That’s too small,” he tells her.
I ask him about the difference in the rules based on the gender of the player, he tells me that that’s the ‘rule.’ “Girls have to wear covered clothes.”
And clothes are not where the subtle discrimination ends. One only has to look a little further to see the gender pay gap in the sport.
Last year, after the dangal at Tulsi Swaminath Akhara, the men’s category winner got Rs 11,000 and a bike while the women’s category winner was awarded Rs 5,000 and a cycle.
“We were very angry and raised this issue with the authorities. Why shouldn’t the girls get a bike? This was unfair,” Aastha tells me. But Aashtha and the other fellow female wrestlers were told that from the following year there will not be any differentiation between the prizes awarded to the men and the women players.
Kallu Pehalwan, the local Pradhan, also admits it was a mistake. “We will take care of it this time,” he said.
Where’s The Money?
At the end of the three hour long practice session in the morning, Aastha hops on to Nandini’s scooter to go to the flower shop right opposite Sonarpura Chintamani Ganesh Temple. Aashtha’s mother has been running the shop for the last 18 years, she sells flowers, diyas and ladoos. “After my husband died I had to take care of my three children all by myself,” she said. This has been the only source of income for the family.
She said that her husband was killed by his brother following a property dispute and they had to leave the house. “Aastha was only 2 years old then,” she said.
Every day, after the practice session, Aastha sits with her mother to make flower garlands. She then heads to her college where she is pursuing her graduation. From there, she goes back to the Sigra stadium for the evening practice session. When she returns, the mother-daughter duo make ladoos together.
“There are no facilities at the stadium. They don’t even provide us with any snacks or juice after the practice. By the time we get home, we are very exhausted and barely eat,” said Aashtha. Nandini resonates the feeling. “We will quit wrestling if this continues. Our families can’t afford to send us to a better training facility; there are none in Varanasi,” she said. At Kallu Pehalwan’s house, where there are about 30 buffaloes stationed, there’s no dearth of the diet these young pehelwans need. But, he complains too. “Government funding? Wo to bhagwan ke bharose (Government funding is in the hands of the God)” he declares.
He then says he will put in all the effort to make sure his granddaughters can make Varanasi proud. “We can have our own Phogat sisters. This is just the beginning,” he said.
When I point out that there have been female wrestlers a decade before his granddaughters started, he said, “But this takes time.” Meanwhile, Nandini whispers in my ear, “This is all about caste.” Later, she explains that even if this is undoubtedly gender empowerment, it is the rich and the powerful ones who get to compete in bigger platforms. “We don’t have the means, and no one is willing to help us either,” she said.